Luna Arabic Bistro - The culinary star of Nazareth

Luna Arabic Bistro shot up to make Time Out Magazine’s Eating and Drinking Awards’ 101 Best Places to Eat in Israel (2019). Not surprisingly, customers began to flow in from all parts of the country.

Luna Arabic Bistro (photo credit: YAEL MORRIS)
Luna Arabic Bistro
(photo credit: YAEL MORRIS)
Luna Zreik has not always had a burning passion to become a chef. She initially trained and worked for years as a social worker, while raising a family. Relatively recently, however, her smoldering creative talents needed to find an outlet, and she became the chef-owner of a Café Café restaurant – ostensibly just another chain restaurant in a run-of-the-mill shopping mall.
It was not long before her own adaptations to the menu gained her a loyal following – and even the owners of the mall began to take notice. So when her franchise agreement lapsed, the mall proprietors stepped in with an offer Luna could not refuse: they would become her partners if she would open her own restaurant.
Once again, success was quick to follow, and Luna Arabic Bistro shot up to make Time Out Magazine’s Eating and Drinking Awards’ 101 Best Places to Eat in Israel (2019). Not surprisingly, customers began to flow in from all parts of the country.
Even in this latest incarnation, Luna’s innate social worker persona perseveres. She hires local women from Nazareth to work part-time in the kitchen, preparing the more labor-intensive dishes. And as a proponent of female empowerment, she has promoted a former dishwasher to the more fulfilling position of taboun operator.
The menu (separate in Hebrew and English) extends over four pages, comprising seven food and five beverage categories. The former are: Appetizers (NIS 17-32); Intermediate dishes (NIS 26-38); Main courses (NIS 52-113); Side dishes (NIS 7-13); From the Oven (NIS 39-58); Kids’ Meals (NIS 16-28); and Desserts (NIS 12-42).
 The beverage menu includes three categories of alcohol, since Luna comes from a Christian Arab household – where, as she relates, “there was alway arak in our home.” Most notable is the wine list, which features unfamiliar vintages from Arab-owned boutique wineries in the Galilee.
 Our hostess Luna guided us through the menu, serving her particular recommendations and keeping up a running commentary throughout the meal. She started us off with a selection of seven appetizers from the total of 10 listed in the “Tasting Nazareth” section of the menu.
 Here, too, the outspoken chef had a bone to pick with attitudes of her sector to first courses. “Many Arab restaurants, in order to attract Jewish customers, adopted the practice of serving free starters with the order of main courses. This has resulted in an overall decline in the quality of mezze,“ she laments, “resulting from the use of inferior and less fresh ingredients, and skimping on the care needed to prepare the salads in the first place.”  
HER CHOICES of notable appetizers for us included the local green Olesh, topped here with french-fried onions; Babaganoush with a twist, garnished with croutons and garlic labaneh; crispy, golden Sambusak, stuffed distinctively with falafel; Yalanji, traditional vegetarian grape leaves rolled fresh daily by women from Nazareth; sautéed Okra, which did not lose their slimy texture; and fried Cauliflower on garlic labaneh, sweetened with honey and pomegranate concentrate. These were accompanied by pale white cloud pitas, and piping hot Zaatar cheese rolls.
 As good as these creative interpretations of mezze were, it is when we got to the next categories that the food kicked up a notch. Our intermediate dish was one not listed in the menu, because salads are constantly being rotated, in accordance with the freshest vegetables available in the market.
Our refreshing salad was the Luna salad (only NIS 39). The basic green was a mound of fresh cilantro (coriander) stalks, tossed with red cabbage as the cruciferous vegetable and colorful balls of Nazareth labaneh seasoned with pistachio, mint and sumac. The entire pleasant mix was enhanced by slivered almonds for a bit of welcome crunch, and a light dressing sweetened ever so slightly with honey and pomegranate concentrate.

Our warm intermediate dish was another classic of local cuisine: Shishbarak, the Arab variant of tortellini. The version here was stuffed with kabab, while the pasta pockets floated in a perfectly seasoned sauce of yogurt laced with olive oil and garnished with mint leaves. It was so good we wished it could have been the size of a main course – except we had to save room for the one that was to follow.
Our representative main course was Al-Ma-ashuka (Arabic for “the beloved”), a dish from medieval Syrian cuisine that Luna has lovingly revived. This novel dish features meatballs seasoned with the most amazing combination of ingredients: caramelized onion, ginger, dates and rosewater. Needless to say, this casserole – served on a bed of creamy, buttery mashed potatoes instead of the ordinary rice – was as delicious as it was unusual.
Another surprise – actually two – awaited us for dessert. Luna sat with us at the table and began preparing our ultimate dessert as we ate Ushta – a mound of rich yet chiffony clotted cream, drizzled with an addictive orange marmalade and sprinkled with toasted slivered almonds and ground pistachio nuts. This heavenly dessert took up absolutely no room in our almost full stomachs, so we are able to look forward to the Ma’amul that was being prepared right in front to our eyes.
 To make a long story short, Luna’s Ma’amul, made with semolina flour that had been marinated in samneh (rendered clarified butter), were not stuffed with the expected dates, but with a pistachio-nut mixture. In seconds, the filled cookies were decorated like flower petals and emerged golden brown after just moments in the taboun. These light cookies, which practically melted in our mouths, were easily the best Ma’amul any of us had ever tasted.
One final surprise awaited: a reprise of Ma’amul, this time stuffed with the aforementioned ushta. Absolutely heavenly – and a fitting finale to a most memorable gourmet meal.
Luna Arabic Bistro.
Not kosher
BIG Fashion Mall, Tewfiq
Zayad 53,
Nazareth. Tel. (04) 888-8626
The writer was a guest of the restaurant.